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US, South Korea Agree to Fund Furloughed Workers on US Bases

In this Feb. 21, 2020, photo, a South Korean marine wearing a mask stands in front of the Navy Base after a soldier of the unit was confirmed to have been infected with the coronavirus on Jeju Island, South Korea.

Thousands of furloughed South Korean workers could soon return to their jobs on U.S. military bases in South Korea under the terms of a deal announced by the Pentagon.

In a statement late Tuesday, the Defense Department said it has accepted South Korea’s offer to fund labor costs for all Korean national employees on U.S. bases through the end of 2020.

The agreement does not completely resolve a months-long impasse between Washington and Seoul over how to split the cost of the roughly 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea.

The allies’ previous military cost-sharing agreement expired at the end of the year. Over 4,000 South Korean civilian employees were placed on unpaid leave in March, after temporary U.S. funding ran out.

Military officials and analysts have warned the furloughs could jeopardize military readiness, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic and increasing North Korean provocations.

Under the new agreement, South Korea will provide more than $200 million for the entire Korean national (KN) workforce through the end of 2020, the Pentagon said. The U.S. said it expects all Korean employees to return to work “no later than mid-June.”

“This decision enables a more equitable sharing of the KN employee labor burden by (South Korea) and the U.S.,” the U.S. statement said. “More importantly, it sustains the Alliance’s number one priority - our combined defense posture.”

A South Korean foreign ministry official confirmed the arrangement, according to the Yonhap news agency.

But the announcement does not mean that a broader cost-sharing deal, or Special Measures Agreement (SMA), has been reached.

Critical defense infrastructure projects will remain suspended and all logistics support contracts for USFK will continue to be paid completely by the United States, the Pentagon statement said.

“Burden sharing will remain out of balance for an Alliance that values and desires parity,” the U.S. statement added. “USFK’s mid- and long-term force readiness remains at risk.”

President Donald Trump, who has long accused South Korea of taking advantage of U.S. protection, last month said he rejected South Korea’s latest offer.

The negotiations have spilled over into the public - a rarity for such talks - greatly straining the alliance.

South Korean officials have said publicly that a 13 percent increase is their final offer. Washington is reportedly now asking for a 50 percent increase.

“It does not seem like we are anywhere close to an agreement,” said David Maxwell, an analyst who focuses on U.S.-South Korea military relations at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “This is only a band-aid. It will not stop the bleeding in the alliance.”

Any eventual cost-sharing deal must be approved by South Korea’s National Assembly, and observers have noted that allies of South Korean President Moon Jae-in may be less likely to cede ground on the issue after winning a landslide election last month.

It is not clear if the narrower labor proposal will need to be approved by parliament.